August 26 is Women’s Equality Day in the United States, commemorating the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. In the USA, women’s rights have seen huge strides forwards (as well as some big steps back). But how do women’s rights in the States compare to other countries around the world? Four women — from the United States, Ireland, New Zealand, and Canada — weigh in.
American Erin Dunphy said she thinks the United States “falls right in the middle” when it comes to women’s rights. “I rag a lot on the USA as far as gender equality, but it’s not all bad… I can honestly say I’ve never felt like I couldn’t do something because I was a woman.” She cites American women’s ability to operate in the economic and work sphere, and the growing number of women in high-level business roles leading to further opportunities for women and changes that allow more women to have a family while maintaining a career, although she notes that childcare and maternity leave are still lacking compared to other countries.
“It’s like that story at Facebook,” Dunphy said, “where the expectant mother parking spaces were in the back of the lot because there had never been a pregnant woman who could make a change, so Sheryl Sandberg, massively pregnant, changed it.”
In America’s neighbors to the north, Canadian Krys Power said attitudes are similarly changing for the better. “It’s not so unusual to see women in positions of power and leadership now,” Power said. “It’s more common to see fathers sharing the child-reading load with mothers, etc.”
On the other side of the world, New Zealand women have been ahead of the curve both historically and in modern times. The first country in the world to grant women the right to vote, 2018 marks 125 years of kiwi women’s suffrage. This year also marks another milestone in the New Zealand government: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern became only the second elected head of government to give birth while in office (after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto), and took six weeks of maternity leave before returning to work at the start of August. New Zealander Erika Anderson said that Ardern’s actions are an inspiration to many working women in the country and abroad.
“I feel like this gives hope to all the young, ambitious women in New Zealand and elsewhere who have worked hard for successful careers and won’t want to sacrifice that to be able to start a family,” Anderson said. “The fact is that being a mother shouldn’t discount you from having a rewarding and successful career.”
This mindset is something that Dunphy hopes to see more of in the United States.
“As I get older and look toward my next season of life, I really worry about how it’ll change what I do work-wise, and I hate that,” Dunphy said. “And I have a really supportive husband, but it still happens; it’ll change things for me in a different way than it’ll change things for him. It’s really frustrating to feel like I’m going to have to make a choice.”
Still, while Anderson believes that there are areas in which New Zealand excels regarding gender equality and women’s rights, she said it is hard to definitively quantify them as a leader when they fall behind in other aspects. She mentions reproductive rights as a major failing for the country. Abortion is still in the Crimes Act, meaning that a woman is only able to have an abortion if having a child presents a serious danger to her, as agreed upon by two separate doctors.
“It’s degrading that a woman who simply does not want to have a child has to claim mental or physical health issues to be given that choice,” Anderson said.
Reproductive rights are a major issue for women worldwide. In the United States, Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that it is unconstitutional to restrict access to or criminalize abortion, is constantly under attack by government and social groups. Many fear that Trump’s intended Supreme Court appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh will be a mortal blow to the protection of abortion access.
“Reproductive rights are something that does affect all women whether they’re pro- or anti-choice,” Dunphy said. “Reproductive rights laws are paternalistic; they say women can’t make their own medical decisions […] the fact is banning abortion never stops abortion, it just stops safe abortions.”
Reproductive freedom has also been a major topic in Ireland this year, with a public referendum voting to repeal a constitutional amendment that gave unborn fetuses equal right to live as pregnant women. Removing this amendment provides the opportunity for sensible legislation regarding abortion in Ireland, rather than the restrictive limitations that led to the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Halappanavar was denied an abortion despite miscarriage being deemed inevitable, leaving the hospital unable to treat the complications which led to sepsis and cardiac arrest. Her death spurred protests and a movement to repeal the Eighth Amendment, and when the referendum was carried out earlier this year, the response was overwhelming.
“That was huge for Ireland,” Irish woman Medb McCarthy said. “I think the landslide result took us all by surprise. I was very proud to be Irish that day.” Overall turnout for the referendum was 53.7 percent of registered voters, and all but a few constituencies voted in favor of repealing the amendment, leading to a massive 66.9 percent “yes” result.
Looking forward, all four women have similar hopes for their countries. The pay gap is something each would like to see her country work toward eliminating, although Anderson said the first step is getting people to understand that it even exists. “I know many people still scoff at this as a myth,” Anderson said, “but unfortunately research has shown it to be a fact… it’s very difficult to fight an injustice that isn’t even accepted as reality.” She believes that having more women in leadership roles will help to close this gap.
McCarthy’s thoughts were similar. “Approximately 70 percent of my colleagues are female,” she said. “However, there are more men on a senior management level than women. This means that it is primarily men making decisions for a company full of women.”
Power also hopes for more women in power in Canada, saying that the next big achievement she would like to see is for a woman to be elected leader of the country. With Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote in the 2016 election, this is clearly something many Americans would like to see for the United States as well.
All four women are optimistic. Power lists two “small but important” recent events in Canada as evidence of achievable forward progress: changing the lyrics of the Canadian national anthem to be gender neutral (from “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command”) and the elimination of a tax on menstruation products.
“Previously [they] were taxed as luxury or non-essential items,” Power said, “which is certainly the wrong classification as they are necessities. I believe we were one of the first countries to make the change thanks to the petitioning and campaigning efforts of women’s rights activists in Canada, and those in other countries have since been pushing to eliminate the Tampon Tax in theirs.”
In the United States, Dunphy said that despite setbacks and ongoing examples of equality, she is heartened by changes she can see from her grandmother’s and mother’s generations to her own. However, she said it is important not to get complacent and to keep pushing for women’s rights and gender equality. “I think we’re on the cusp of another real change,” she said. “I talk about it with my mentor at work all the time… if we stick with it, we’ll see change. But you can’t get distracted; you have to keep your foot on the gas.”